Called to Pass the Torch

2 Kings 2:1-15
Transfiguration Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert

On Transfiguration Sunday, the Gospel lesson and our opening scripture in this worship service is the story of Jesus Christ being transformed on the mountaintop while being visited by Moses and Elijah, who had lived at least 1200 and 800 years before him. If the appearance of these long dead prophets and Jesus shining in all glory is not strange enough for you, we then have the Old Testament story of Elijah’s death, which is not exactly a death, but more like an ascension. There are only two people in the Bible who seemed to be taken alive into heaven – Enoch in the fifth chapter of Genesis and Elijah who has chariots of fire swinging low while a whirlwind separates him from Elisha.

Have you ever thought about how your own death will go? Most people want to live a long life, then lie down one night and never wake up. Essentially, most of want to be like Elijah – no suffering, just departure. But that is a rare, especially in our highly medicalized end of life. No, usually, you progress toward death for some period of time. Days, weeks, months, and often years. The good thing about dying without warning is that you don’t have to worry about it. The bad thing about dying suddenly is that you and your loved ones don’t have the chance to say “good-bye.” Good-byes are hard work emotionally, but they can be meaningful.

That’s what happens in our story today – Elijah and Elisha say good-bye, as it seems clear to both of them and to many others that Elijah is leaving the earth. Perhaps he had been sick or growing obviously weak. The text does not tell us.
But it is clear everyone knows he’s leaving.

Both the transfiguration story of Jesus and the story of Elijah’s exodus into
heaven are ones that make us think about the spiritual realms of living and dead.
How close are our loved ones after they’ve gone? Probably much closer than we
think. What power do they still offer us? Notice how much this story focuses on the relationship of Elijah and Elisha. This story is as much about the passing of the mantle, the torch, the spirit, the power of Elijah to Elisha as it is about Elijah’s unusual departure from the earth.

NRS 2 Kings 2:1-15 Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel." But Elisha said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they went down to Bethel.

3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he said, "Yes, I know; keep silent." 4 Elijah said to him, "Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So they came to Jericho. 5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, "Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?" And he answered, "Yes, I know; be silent." 6 Then Elijah said to him, "Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan." But he said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." So the two of them went on.

7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, "Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you." Elisha said, "Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit." 10 He responded, "You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not."

11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, "Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. 15 When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, "The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha." They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.

This story makes me want to ask three questions. The first is “Whose mantle, whose torch are you carrying?” Maybe you’ve lost a spouse who you loved and you are carrying the torch for them. It’s a way of not losing them completely because you still embody part of who they were, you value much of what they valued. Maybe your parents have died and you see things in your own life that remind you of your mom or dad. You have mannerisms or ways of saying things that first belonged to them. You use their favorite recipe or a tool that belonged to them. It could have been a sibling you lost, whose perspective you share. Sometimes there’s a grandparent, a close friend, a mentor, a boss, a teacher, coach or pastor who is the one whose spirit you want to emulate. Whose mantle or torch are you carrying? As followers of Jesus, our job is carry the torch of Jesus Christ, along with any other torches we might be carrying.

The second question this Elijah-Elisha story makes me ask is “With whom are you walking this earth now? And who then will carry your mantle, your torch when you are gone? Are you, like Elijah, aware that your days on earth are numbered? If so, where will you journey and with whom? Will you try to be independent –as Elijah did? Will someone step in like Elisha saying, “No, I’m staying with you until you go.” The church can play that role for you, whether you have close relatives or not. Friends at Church and Stephen Ministers can stand with you until the end. Elijah dismissed Elisha again and again, but Elisha was determined to remain. The other prophets encouraged Elisha to stop following, but he silenced them, and carried on. Are others learning to do what you do in the church? Rather than resisting a companion in the faith, can you encourage co-operation, such that others learn to carry your torch. There’s a gift in working together with others.

The final question that this Elijah-Elisha story begs is this: “What is that mantle, torch, power, talent, spirit you will impart to your successors?” Will people want to emulate you? Do they see the power of God at work in your life, such that they might want a double portion of your spirit?

Elisha was simply asking from Elijah what was a typical inheritance of the firstborn son – a double portion. Elijah knew it was not in his hands to determine that outcome.

I’m guessing that your old coat and your scarf are not going to have special powers. Those who come after you will likely not be able to part any waters with your clothing, but what power will your spirit give to others when you are gone? The ability to communicate the truth in love? A spirit of compassion and generosity? An appreciation of beauty or hard work? The witness of a life of faithfulness to God? Will you be remembered more for your negative traits or your positive ones? Are you imparting the power of resiliency, patience, trustworthiness, gentleness, imagination, unconditional love, peace, hopefulness, or joy? Is the Spirit of God evident in your life? If not, why not?

The season of the church year which begins this Wednesday, Lent, is a forty day period prior to Easter that in the early church was a time of preparation for adult baptisms which usually happened during the Easter vigil from Saturday night-Sunday morning on Easter week-end. Lent is a time to renew your commitment to building the kind of spiritual life that others might want to emulate. Lent is a time to recommit to building a life which is pleasing to God, which demonstrates the power and love of God. Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, this Wednesday, is a time to remember that you yourself will not be here forever. To dust we will all return, so the charge of Lent is to recall the heart of our faith, being like Jesus, carrying his torch, remembering the purpose of this our life is to love as he did.

Jesus said the great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as you love yourself, so I challenge you to begin Lent by coming to our Ash Wednesday service and prayerfully considering your need to grow in your love of God, working on the spiritual disciples of worship, prayer, Bible study. You can do that by attending Lively learning classes or by stepping up your personal devotions at home. You could commit to attending the Men’s Prayer Breakfast or the Women’s Prayer and Walk.

If you are weak in your love of neighbor, then the Mission Team has all kinds of opportunities for you to grow by giving to others. Some of you participated in the Habitat workday yesterday. Others of you will be generous in giving to this year’s Lenten challenge to meet the most basic of needs or to the One Great Hour of Sharing on Easter. In addition to generosity of giving through mission activities, we have several ministry teams at Peace which could use some new members. Look at the list of meetings and consider visiting one or more teams to fit your niche.

If you are weak in loving yourself, then you should commit to getting more sleep and more exercise, eating less sugar and fewer carbs, giving up red meat or desserts or alcohol. Taking time for Sabbath rest, pace yourself. Love yourself enough to sacrifice overworking, laziness, and gluttony for your own good health and peace.

Elijah was a powerful prophet , who challenged kings for the worship of false
gods. Scholars figure Elijah lived in the 9th Century BC – nearly 3000 years ago.
But here we are still talking about his life. He left a legacy for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. His legacy was enlarged by passing the torch (or in this case, the mantle) to Elisha. The stories of these two prophet-friends and their miraculous faith have empowered generations after them. Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is God” while Elisha’s name means “God is my salvation.” The chariots, by the way, were a symbol of the power of Baal, the false god of the clouds being worshiped by many people in Elijah’s time. So it is no small matter that the Lord came to Elijah as the power in the storm and the rider of the chariot, out-doing Baal, the false god.

Elisha’s prophetic ministry was different from Elijah’s, but Elijah’s influence made Elisha the prophet he became. Elijah had already been alerted back in chapter 19 of I Kings that Elisha would be his successor, but he seems to want to be sure of Elisha’s loyalty and Elisha’s vision before he passes the mantle. Elisha was determined not to be left behind each place Elijah went near the end of his life, places of significance to the Israelites: Gilgal, Beth-El, Jericho, and the Jordan River. And after Elijah is gone, Elisha returns to each of those places.

Faith is caught more than taught. We learn more by the relationships we have than by the content message of a teacher. We learn by spending time together. The youth at Peace learn more from watching you adults, how you interact with one another and with them, by what you value, than by anything you say.

Are you intentionally shaping the faith of those younger than you in this church? Are you thinking about the witness of your involvement, your spirit? Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers but those who do the will of God my father.” There is a kinship here in this church, which runs deeper than any familial relationship.

Elisha called out to Elijah, “Father, Father” You are fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers to one another in the faith. And as you are preparing to leave this earth, and we should all be preparing because we never know when, but one day you too will be called to pass the torch. Will the torch of your faith be burning brightly enough when you die that someone else will find it helpful in guiding them through the dark places in life? Will your mantle be something worth keeping?

On this day of the Transfiguration of Christ, let me remind you that because of Christ, you have been given enormous power to live faithfully in the Spirit of Christ which has been given you. This power is not exercised accidently, but by an active faith and will to live according to that Spirit.

With the love of God poured into your heart and intentionally embraced, you powerfully shape those around you. I have a mentor in the Christian faith who still powerfully shapes my life, even though she’s been too sick for years with chronic fatigue syndrome to do more than pray for me, occasionally write me, or have an hour’s visit with me when I travel there. But there a bond – there’s spiritual cord that ties us together over time and distance.

Paul challenges us to “Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Be the kind of person others want to follow. Be the kind of person who has the radiance of Christ’s spirit shining in your face, in your eyes. Be such a powerfully faithful person that others want to receive a double portion of your spirit. Be ready for God’s sweet chariot to carry you home one day.

Many of you have heard me talk about Virginia Durr, civil rights worker, the prophetic voice always calling for justice, who was a member of our church in Montgomery, AL. When we buried her, the group of friends and family who wanted a piece of her mantle of courage gathered at her graveside on the hillside of that cold day and spontaneously broke out in singing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” the spiritual we will sing to close this service.